As Homer head coach Justin Zank left a nearly deserted football field at Service High School in Anchorage on Saturday night following his team’s massive 22-20 upset of Houston for the Mariners’ first state football title, he had one final thing to say.
“The weight, lifted off my shoulders right now,” he said in the dark, speaking of a Division III First National Bowl game that started in early winter sun and ended in celebratory sunset. “That’s all.”
This one hadn’t come easy.
Not for Homer’s senior class. Not for Homer High School. And certainly not for Zank.
Before becoming Homer’s head coach in 2019, Zank spent eight years teaching in Voznesenka. In 2013, he helped start a varsity, 11-man program, that despite a tiny school size and no football tradition whatsoever, won five games total and a feature story in The New York Times before folding after five seasons.
Voznesenka players Chris Martishev, Irimey Reutov, Makary Reutov and Nikifor Reutov and Kachemak Selo’s Kelsey Reutov played for Homer this season under a co-op program of the Alaska School Activities Association.
Upon reaching Homer, Zank was greeted with a freshman class of just four players — Carter Tennison, Jack Hrenchir, Charles Van Meter and Coleman Stephens — as he began the process of trying to get a program over the hump that had reached three state titles games and lost every time, most recently 20-14 to Barrow in 2017 when the Whalers made a goal-line stand in the final seconds.
That freshman class had to deal with a season curtailed by wildfire in 2019, then campaigns hampered by COVID in 2020 and 2021. But somehow, that class had grown to 17 seniors this season.
“I mean, I just encouraged them,” Tennison said. “They were athletes. They were playing sports but their parents wouldn’t let them play contact sports.
“I was that guy that was like, ‘Hey, you’ve got to play football. It’s a fun sport.’”
Homer stormed into the state final with a 7-2 record, but one more obstacle stood in the way — Houston. The Hawks came in 8-0, beating opponents by an average of 38.4 points. Included in that was a 46-0 victory over Homer in Week 2.
Granted, Homer didn’t have an injured Tennison — the Mid Alaska Conference Offensive Player of the Year — for the game. But, still, 46-0.
“Our coaches have been hounding us for the last week and a half about how we had the heart to win this game, and how we were seen by other people as there was no chance you’re going to win this game,” said Tennison, who passed for a pair of touchdowns. “I think everybody on this team, and in this group of family, had a thought in their mind that we were going to come out here and show what we could do.”
The Hawks blew through opponents for two main reasons — an offense that kept it on the ground and knifed through opponents, and a defense that had given up just three touchdowns all season heading into Saturday.
Zank said the game plan was to stop the run and force Houston to try to pass to the outside. The stats say that mostly worked. Houston rushed for 163 yards, while attempting 16 passes.
Homer senior middle linebacker Bernie Black, who had one game of football to his credit before this season, credits more than the game plan.
“I don’t think it’s the actual plan,” Black said. “I think it’s the mentality. I think it’s the energy, and we bring it out to the game. And from the first play, we were popping pads. And that’s just the way we played.”
Houston head coach Charles Whittington said the Hawks hurt themselves by fumbling six times, losing three. But Zank credited players like Black, Chris Martishev, Tennison, Nathan Overson, Elijah Gordon, Oak Anderson and Owen Storm for taking the Houston offense out of its comfort zone.
“Everyone contributed,” Zank said of the team’s defensive effort. “It was awesome.”
Despite the sterling defensive effort, the Hawks did get two huge scoring plays in the first quarter — a 70-yard run from Mark Kudryn and a 63-yard strike from Carter Seime to Hayden Howard.
Homer would have to figure out a way to score some points to win this one. That’s where Tennison came in.
“Tennison is the key to their success,” Whittington said. “He played amazing.”
The stats for the Homer offense were not amazing. Several big losses meant the Mariners rushed for negative yards. Tennison was 13 of 24 for 169 yards through the air, but threw three interceptions.
“He’s a gunslinger, so he’s going to throw those INTs but he’s also going to make big-time plays when we need it,” Zank said. “He’s a heck of a player on both sides of the ball. He’s a heck of an athlete and we’re going to miss him next year.”
In the first quarter, Tennison hit passes of 11 and 41 yards to Mo Techie to set up a Martishev touchdown run. Tennison ran in the conversion for an 8-6 lead.
Down 13-8 in the second quarter, Tennison engineered a drive by hitting four passes and rushing four times for 21 yards, including a 1-yard scoring run. His two-point conversion put Homer up 16-13 at the half.
The second half became a defensive slugfest where each team’s defense had an answer for whatever the opposing offense could draw up. The teams combined for a total of six first downs in the half.
It was gonna take some special plays to score, and in the third quarter Martishev made two of them for Homer.
First, he made a gutsy catch of a Houston punt at the Hawks 35-yard line and returned it all the way to the 12.
“Once I saw the ball, you know, everything was clear,” Martishev said. “I was gonna catch it and everything else. It was like a blur.”
On the first play, Tennison threw a pass to Martishev. The Houston defender initially had better position, but Martishev got in front of the defender and set Homer up at the 1.
“I knew he was going to catch it,” Tennison said. “He’s really stepped up. We had one of our starting receivers go down against Chugiak with a broken collarbone.
“And Chris wasn’t playing offense. These last two games were his first games playing offense. And he has really stepped up.”
Tennison crashed in from the 1 for a 22-13 Homer lead with 2 seconds left in the third quarter.
Houston’s defense grew fiercer in the fourth quarter, not allowing Homer a first down on three drives. Meanwhile, the Hawks got more desperate on offense, heaving passes up the sideline in hopes of something working.
Late in the fourth quarter, it finally did. Seime put together a quick drive with a 22-yard pass to Keldin Nicoll, then a 25-yard scoring strike to Nicoll for a 22-20 score with just 1:09 left.
There would still be one massive test left for Homer.
Martishev recovered the onside kick, but ran the ball instead of going down. Houston stripped Martishev — who said his knee was down when the ball came out — and recovered with 1:05 showing on the clock.
“You don’t bring that man down for what he just did,” Black said. “We pick him up. We pick everybody else around us up and we go make a play.”
Homer did just that, forcing Houston to turn the ball over on downs before Tennison ended it by taking a knee.
“That was huge,” Zank said. “Homer teams I’ve coached in the past would have let that beat us. So I’m really proud of our guys for overcoming all the adversity in this game. Because there was a lot of it.”
Tennison and Black said they were particularly happy for River Mann, the Homer assistant who had played on the team that lost the state title to Barrow and the promising 2020 team that lost the playoffs due to COVID.
“He’s had it hard, and that’s why it was really emotional tonight, because we needed this one,” Black said. “We needed this one for the school, we really focused on changing the environment of Homer.
“We’ve been known to be soft in the past. And no, we didn’t accept that this year. And that mentality really led us to the state game and the win.”
And a massive weight off Zank’s shoulders.
Editor’s note: This article corrects the number of players in the senior class from a previous online version.
Mariners 22, Hawks 20
Homer 8 8 6 0 —22
Houston 13 0 0 7 —20
Hou — Kudryn 70 run (kick failed), 11:04.
Hom — Martishev 3 run (Tennison run), 5:57.
Hou — Howard 63 pass from Seime (Whitted kick), 2:13.
Hom — Tennison 1 run (Tennison run), 9:41.
Hom — Tennison 1 run (run failed), :02.
Hou — Nicoll 25 pass from Seime (Whitted kick), 1:09.
First downs 11 7
Rushing yds 29-(-7) 39-163
Passing yds 169 136
Comp-att-int 13-24-3 6-16-0
Return yds 23 53
Punts 6-25.0 3-27.3
Fumbles 4-1 6-3
Penalties 9-52 7-60
Rushing — Homer: Tennison 18-14, Nyvall 5-(-29), Martishev 6-8. Houston: Hawes 4-7, Kudryn 26-177, Whitted 1-1, Seime 7-(-11), Nicoll 1-(-11).
Passing – Homer: Tennison 13-24-3—169. Houston: Seime 6-14-0—136, Nicoll 0-1-0—0, Whitted 0-1-0—0.
Receiving — Homer: Techie 4-97, Hanson 5-29, Martishev 4-43. Houston: Howard 2-66, Craig 1-4, Hina 1-19, Nicoll 2-47.